Where’s C3PO when we need him? Compared to many other aspects of advanced technology — even compared to AI software technology, which isn’t exactly zooming along — humanoid robotics seems to be advancing at a snail’s pace. As in many other areas, the cause of the relatively slow progress is a combination of technical and economic/cultural factors. One possible work-around to the latter, being explored by an increasing number of roboticists worldwide, is the open source development methodology. Perhaps the most exciting example of this trend is the iCub, recently developed by a European Union–funded consortium of researchers.
The power of the open source methodology to get complex, important things done has been well established by now in the software domain. The Linux operating system and the Firefox browser are probably the best-known examples, but there are countless others, ranging from everyday consumer software (such as, say, BitTorrent clients) to technical software helping scientists do their research (nearly all serious bioinformatics work these days is done using open source software). Open source hardware, on the other hand, has been slower to take off. Consumer hardware benefits so much from economies of scale in manufacturing that it’s proved hard for upstart open source hardware alternatives to really take off. But humanoid robotics is one area where the open source hardware approach has tremendous potential. This R&D domain is of tremendous importance to the future of humanity – and beyond – yet it’s something neither industry, government nor academia is doing an adequate job of funding. Japanese companies have been the pioneers here but their enthusiasm has flagged in recent years, with Sony dropping its Qrio project and Honda’s Asimo robot remaining, basically, a skunkworks project. The robotics industry as a whole is arguably flourishing better than ever, but there is a huge gap between Roombas, industrial robot arms, and their ilk, and mobile humanoid robots with the capability for complex interactions in the physical and social world.
Open source humanoid robots have been proposed before, e.g. PINO created by Japanese scientists and launched in 2001. These earlier projects were technically solid but didn’t really take off in the community.
However, I’m guardedly optimistic that the iCub may meet a better fate. Early results look promising – for instance, a nifty video of iCub drumming (see resource link). (OK, it’s no Max Roach yet, but what we do have here is coordination of hands, feet, and hearing – sensorimotor integration – which is a powerful first step toward real embodied intelligence.)
Of course, demos are demos, not robust technologies, and making a demo of a robot playing the drums is no big trick, given modern engineering technology. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that the technical ideas underlying the iCub seem extremely solid, and it’s clear that the architecture is capable of a lot more than just the handful of tricks demonstrated to date. Its fingers and arms have an impressive number of degrees of freedom: a choice made because the designers favor cognitive theories, implying that advanced human cognition largely arises out of the interaction between perception and action in the manipulation of objects.
Making a demo of a robot playing the drums is no big trick, given modern engineering technology.
iCub itself is just a platform and it doesn’t solve all the problems of robotics, by any means. The iCub team has so far focused on low-level perception, action, and coordination, without plunging much into the depths of communication, learning, abstract reasoning, and so forth. But they are collaborating with others that have expertise in areas such as language learning. And the beauty of the open source approach is that it’s relatively straightforward for others with AI ideas and technical chops to extend their work. Building an iCub of one’s own is not free, nor trivial, but it’s a damn sight easier than designing your own humanoid from scratch… and more possible than getting your hands on Qrio or Asimo, which have not been publicly released. And unlike Sony’s Aibo, the robotic dog who has become a staple of academic AI research — if one finds aspects of the hardware platform inadequate, one can always modify it, since the specs are completely open. Different researchers are bound to take the iCub in radically different directions. For instance, while I’m an AI guy rather than a robotics researcher, reading about iCub has inspired me to think a bit about how it might be integrated with various open source AI software platforms, robot simulators. and virtual worlds.
Will open source do for humanoid robotics what it’s done for Web browsers and bioinformatics? It’s too soon to say for sure, but there’s reason to hope.
Ben Goertzel is the CEO of AI companies Novamente and Biomind, a math Ph.D., writer, philosopher, musician, and all-around futurist maniac.